The Intolerable-Inquiry: The Documents of the Groupe d’information sur les prisons


Soci­ety and those who lead it must be informed about the way in which it is pro­tected.

“Dépo­si­tion du Doc­teur Rose, psy­chi­a­tre de la cen­trale de Toul,” Cahiers de reven­di­ca­tions sor­tis des pris­ons lors des récen­tes révoltes (2 April 1972)

Ten years in prison for 70 dol­lars is a polit­i­cal expe­ri­ence.

GIP, “La place de Jack­son dans le mou­ve­ment des pris­ons,” Intolérable 3: L’assasinat de George Jack­son (10 Novem­ber 1971)

Recent years have wit­nessed the con­sol­i­da­tion in the his­to­ri­og­ra­phy of “the 68 years” of a con­tentious hypoth­e­sis – namely that the anti-sys­temic prac­tices of the French far Left in the wake of les événe­ments served as van­ish­ing medi­a­tors for the intro­duc­tion into French civil soci­ety of expan­sive forms of democ­racy. Thus, in his sur­vey of French Mao­ism as a “con­struc­tive polit­i­cal learn­ing process,” Richard Wolin declares that “Mao­ism, in its post-May incar­na­tion, played the unsus­pect­ing role of a way sta­tion or trans­mis­sion belt, wean­ing intel­lec­tu­als away from the dog­mas of ortho­dox Marx­ism and expos­ing them to an expanded def­i­n­i­tion of human eman­ci­pa­tion.”1 Min­ing the same seam, Julian Bourg argues that one “of the great ironies of 1970s France is that some of the prin­ci­pal voices in the revi­tal­iza­tion of civil soci­ety were speak­ing in Marx­isant-rev­o­lu­tion­ary tongues.”2 To the extent that they posit that, in what con­cerned the sub­stance of their actions, the activists of ’68 knew not what they did, these recon­struc­tive accounts of the cun­ning of lib­eral democ­racy are the opti­mistic pen­dant to Régis Debray’s dis­en­chanted account of that tour­nant in French polit­i­cal life, viewed as the mid­wife of France’s sub­sump­tion to the social pat­terns of advanced cap­i­tal­ism. The irony of this irony is that in both instances, the demise of a tele­o­log­i­cal Marx­ist dog­ma­tism is couched in exquis­itely tele­o­log­i­cal terms, with the mis­recog­ni­tion of the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion serv­ing as the pre­lude to a cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion away from rev­o­lu­tion­ary attach­ments (be they Jacobin or Lenin­ist), and towards asso­ci­a­tional democ­racy (in the happy case) or inte­grated com­mod­ity cul­ture (in the bleaker sce­nario).

How­ever ten­den­tious or fal­la­cious the the­sis of French Mao­ism as demo­c­ra­tic van­ish­ing medi­a­tor may be, it has the virtue of direct­ing our atten­tion to the com­plex moment of the early 1970s in France – an espe­cially overde­ter­mined and polit­i­cally sat­u­rated con­junc­ture, tra­versed by inti­ma­tions of defeat, for­ward flights toward “civil war,” redis­cov­er­ies of ortho­doxy, and mul­ti­ple vari­eties of depoliti­ciza­tion. Key to both Bourg and Wolin’s dossiers is the part played in the de-Marx­i­fy­ing tra­jec­tory of French Mao­ism (or rather, of a par­tic­u­lar frac­tion of it, prin­ci­pally rep­re­sented by the Gauche pro­lé­tari­enne [GP]) by the for­ma­tion in early 1971, by ex-mil­i­tants of the recently pro­scribed GP and var­i­ous intel­lec­tu­als – among whom the most promi­nent and involved was Michel Fou­cault – of the Groupe d’information sur les pris­ons (GIP).3 We are for­tu­nate to now have in a French edi­tion a col­lec­tion of the five book­lets pro­duced by the GIP between Feb­ru­ary 1971 and Jan­u­ary 1973 – Intolérable, num­bers 1 through 4, and a col­lec­tion of pris­on­ers’ demands – com­bin­ing ques­tion­naires and inquiries on prison con­di­tions, texts and dec­la­ra­tions from prison upris­ings, reports by prison psy­chi­a­trists, a dossier on the killing of George Jack­son and the black prison move­ment in the US, and cor­re­spon­dence and infor­ma­tion about the wave of sui­cides in French pris­ons.4 This small archive is all the richer inas­much as it repels a reduc­tion of its ambi­gu­i­ties through the flat­ten­ing logic of the futur antèrieur (“it will have been the case” that these inquiries were a step away from Marx­ism and towards democ­racy…).

foucault deleuze sartre

As the dec­la­ra­tion and prefa­tory text to Intolérable 1 man­i­fest, the GIP’s prison inquiries are a sui generis com­bi­na­tion of meth­ods and objec­tives stem­ming from the expe­ri­ence of French Mao­ism, the fer­ment in the penal sys­tem, broader shifts on the French Left, muta­tions in the fig­ure of the intel­lec­tual, and the polit­i­cal thought of Michel Fou­cault.5 The GIP’s inau­gu­ra­tion coin­cides with the end of a hunger strike of Maoist pris­on­ers – and with their deci­sion no longer to demand the sta­tus of “polit­i­cal pris­on­ers,” in con­tradis­tinc­tion to ordi­nary (droit com­mun) inmates. For all of the editor’s empha­sis on the irre­ducible sin­gu­lar­ity of which the GIP is sup­posed to be the bare repeater or relay, the group’s pam­phlets begin with a min­i­mal but incon­tro­vert­ible slo­gan: “Courts cops hos­pi­tals asy­lums school mil­i­tary ser­vice the press the TV the State and first of all the pris­ons are intol­er­a­ble.” Refus­ing the hori­zon of “reformism,” they declare that allow­ing pris­on­ers to speak on their own behalf, and using the group to trans­mit their speech and writ­ing to other pris­on­ers, is “the only means to unify in the same strug­gle the inside and out­side of the prison” (16). It is not a mat­ter of incul­cat­ing the “con­scious­ness of oppres­sion,” which could hardly be absent, nor knowl­edge of who the enemy is, a daily expe­ri­ence; rather, it is a ques­tion of coun­ter­ing the man­ner in which the means of for­mu­lat­ing, express­ing, and orga­niz­ing this con­scious­ness are sys­tem­at­i­cally quashed and con­fis­cated.

There is irony in how the Maoist prin­ci­ple “no inves­ti­ga­tion, no right to speak” comes to inform these inquiries. For whereas the Maoists first tried to “estab­lish” them­selves in the fac­to­ries to orga­nize the strug­gle, they were thrown into jails against their will. And their first instinct was sep­a­ra­tion. Unity here is thus a mat­ter of break­ing a divi­sion that – as Fou­cault notes in a num­ber of con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous inter­views – was both imposed upon and even­tu­ally affirmed by the work­ers’ move­ment, with its debil­i­tat­ing intro­jec­tion of a bour­geois moral­ity itself repro­duced by legal and penal insti­tu­tions: the divi­sion between the pro­le­tariat and the “non-pro­le­tar­i­an­ized plebs.”6 The con­text of the ral­ly­ing of the GP to the GIP, and of Foucault’s think­ing at the time, is thus that of an attempt to over­come the seg­men­ta­tions among the oppressed, pri­mar­ily between pro­le­tar­i­ans (or plebs) with a rela­tion­ship to the fac­tory and ones with­out.

To the extent that the penal sys­tem is aimed at pro­duc­ing the iso­la­tion of a (crim­i­nal­ized) frac­tion of the work­ing class, Fou­cault presents the pri­mary objec­tive of the GIP as the “rein­te­gra­tion” of this frac­tion into polit­i­cal strug­gles.7 More­over, this attempt to suture the frac­ture in the pro­le­tariat – repro­duced both by the repres­sive appa­ra­tus and by the offi­cial insti­tu­tions of the work­ers’ move­ment – is dou­bled by a dif­fer­ent kind of alliance-build­ing, in which what has become “intol­er­a­ble” to “new social strata (intel­lec­tual, tech­ni­cians, doc­tors, jour­nal­ists, etc.)” (17) about the rul­ing order is con­nected to what has always been intol­er­a­ble in the expe­ri­ence of the exploited class. “Intol­er­ance” is thus framed not (just) as a human­ist cry, but as a project for uni­fy­ing strug­gles against cap­i­tal­ism – not by pro­vid­ing them with a “think­ing head” but by allow­ing them to com­mu­ni­cate with one another beyond their enforced iso­la­tion. These “intol­er­ance-inquiries” (enquêtes-intol­er­ance) have four prin­ci­ples: not to atten­u­ate oppres­sive power but to attack it in a polit­i­cal act; to be the “first episode of a strug­gle” by tar­get­ing speci­fic insti­tu­tions and indi­vid­u­als,  nam­ing names; to unite around these tar­gets dif­fer­ent strata kept sep­a­rate by the rul­ing class, thus con­sti­tut­ing a sin­gle “front of attack”; to be inquiries from the inside, in which the cus­tom­ary objects of inves­ti­ga­tion become the inves­ti­ga­tors, speak­ing on their own behalf and “tak­ing charge of the strug­gle that will stop oppres­sion from exer­cis­ing itself” (18).

Despite the shifts in Foucault’s own accounts of the GIP, it is impor­tant to keep in mind this explic­itly anti-cap­i­tal­ist dimen­sion of the prison inquiries – con­ceived as instru­ments to orga­nize a unity against the strate­gies of dom­i­na­tion – if only not to have them ret­ro­spec­tively over­whelmed by the empha­sis on “say­ing the event,” and on not inter­fer­ing with the words of the impris­oned.8 The dis­tance between the GIP and clas­si­cal modes of Marx­ist orga­niz­ing is evi­dent enough: an explicit refusal of van­guard orga­niz­ing, not to men­tion of tra­di­tional dis­tinc­tions between dis­ci­plined work­ers and the delin­quent rab­ble, is every­where present. It is also true that many of the terms and prac­tices of the GIP – its stress on pub­lic opin­ion or rights, for instance – seem to belong to a lib­eral fir­ma­ment; and that, notwith­stand­ing the protes­ta­tions against reformism, Fou­cault him­self mused about it call­ing forth “a new Bec­ca­ria.”9 But the van­ish­ing medi­a­tor nar­ra­tive occludes the antag­o­nis­tic dimen­sions of the project, not to men­tion how, be it in the doc­u­ment­ing of George Jackson’s strug­gle or in Foucault’s coquet­ting with a vision of crim­i­nal­ity as rev­o­lu­tion­ary (he quotes Hugo on crime as a “coup d’état from below”), it is any­thing but safely “demo­c­ra­tic.”

intolerable black panther

Much of the will­ful polit­i­cal ambiva­lence in these inquiries lies in the very adjec­tive that gives them their title: intol­er­a­ble. Against the “com­mis­sion of inquiry” (a com­mon prac­tice of the lib­eral or rad­i­cal Left) or the soci­o­log­i­cal study, they reject the “accu­mu­la­tion of knowl­edge” for the sake of two aims: to allow pris­on­ers to com­mu­ni­cate their expe­ri­ences and strug­gles to each other and the out­side, in their own words; to inten­sify and orga­nize an “active intol­er­ance.” This intol­er­ance leaves unde­ter­mined whether it would be assuaged by reform or real­ized in rev­o­lu­tion (though we could haz­ard that the GIP’s ten­dency, as that of Fou­cault, is some­how to think a point of indif­fer­ence between reform and revolt, while brack­et­ing the ques­tion of rev­o­lu­tion). Per­haps we could say that it lies very much on the hither side of such total­iz­ing ques­tions, though it need not avoid total­iz­ing posi­tions. Object­ing to an interviewer’s request to delin­eate what for him would be an “ideal penal sys­tem,” Fou­cault puts the ques­tion as fol­lows – in a class lan­guage which he often adopted in this period, allow­ing it to wane and dis­ap­pear as the 1970s wore on: “I am sim­ply try­ing to make vis­i­ble, to allow to appear and to be trans­formed in a dis­course read­able to all, what is unbear­able for the least priv­i­leged classes in the cur­rent sys­tem of jus­tice.”10

It is fit­ting that the Intolérable inquiries approached this task by begin­ning in ille­gal­ity: pris­on­ers were not allowed to par­tic­i­pate in the ini­tial ques­tion­naire so these had to be covertly dis­trib­uted, by var­i­ous con­tacts, espe­cially fam­ily mem­bers (“some fam­i­lies have become inves­ti­ga­tors,” the pam­phlet notes), in the puni­tively sur­veilled con­text of the “prison visit” (one of the key objects of the inquiries). The approach of Intolérable 1 is method­i­cal. The book­let includes two full ques­tion­naires, two long accounts of prison con­di­tions by pris­on­ers in dif­fer­ent estab­lish­ments, and an anthol­ogy of rep­re­sen­ta­tive state­ments, the­mat­i­cally clas­si­fied, from the remain­der of the ques­tion­naires. Con­trary to Artières’s sug­ges­tion in his post­face that the GIP had no slo­gan but that of let­ting the pris­on­ers speak for them­selves (itself a dec­la­ra­tion that could be eas­ily prob­lema­tized: “let­ting speak” is a very com­plex act), the first book­let does present itself as con­nected to a cam­paign – against the crim­i­nal record, posited as a key site for fight­ing the state’s unlim­ited power, the hypocrisy of its claims to reed­u­ca­tion, and the endemic vio­la­tion of labour rights, which turns every release into a mere reprieve.

The ques­tion­naires cover, in detail at once har­row­ing and rep­e­ti­tious, the con­di­tions of prison life in France in 1971 – from the unavail­abil­ity of den­tistry to the bru­tal­ity of soli­tary con­fine­ment (le mitard), from the lack of books to the filth­i­ness of liv­ing quar­ters, and from the hyper-exploita­tion of prison labour to the repres­sion of sex­ual life.11 Filled out clan­des­tinely, as noted in at least one ques­tion­naire, they are suc­cinct, if detailed, and bleak – like many work­ers’ inquiries nei­ther enjoy­able nor enter­tain­ing, and, given the pass­ing of time, also dis­con­nected as reports from the his­tor­i­cal imme­di­acy that orig­i­nally lent them their moral and polit­i­cal force. While Engels’s Man­ches­ter still makes for vivid read­ing, these archives, dis­joined from the prac­tice of the GIP, nec­es­sar­ily test the reader – at least for Intolérable 1, it is the monot­ony of oppres­sion and not the sin­gu­lar­ity of the voices that stands out. The first ques­tion­naire may give us a clue to this, when, asked “Can you describe the con­di­tions of the prison visit (what seems most intol­er­a­ble to you)?,” the inmate answers: “No. You can­not describe the con­di­tions of the visit, you have to live them” (though he pro­ceeds to list the noise, the dirt and the anx­i­ety gen­er­ated by the limit on time) (20).  What is per­haps most reveal­ing, though, is his answer to the last ques­tion, which asks for gen­eral views about the ques­tion­naire and the inquiry. Starkly, he states “you have the wrong address” – mean­ing that the prison is not a site that could be reformed on its own with­out tak­ing on the whole of the jus­tice sys­tem, where the police engages in forms of vio­lence even more bru­tal than the ones meted out by prison guards. Though he wel­comes the inquiry, as part of a broader inves­ti­ga­tion into the bar­bar­i­ties of the jus­tice sys­tem, its dan­ger is that “the effect is taken for the cause” (31).

This recalls an impor­tant point made by Fou­cault in his pref­ace to Livrozet’s De la prison à la revolte, where he notes that though prison writ­ings, namely in the form of mem­oirs, have been tol­er­ated – as long as they were “as extreme and sin­gu­lar as pos­si­ble,” adven­ture writ­ings that served as the con­verse of the foren­sic thrills of detec­tive fic­tions – what has always been pro­scribed has been the pro­duc­tion in the first per­son of the­ory from prison, espe­cially in the guise of “a think­ing of infrac­tion … a cer­tain reflec­tion on law linked to the refusal of law.”12 Such the­o­riz­ing must be left in the hands of the social sci­en­tists, for whom the pris­oner is the inves­ti­gated, never the inves­ti­ga­tor, and pris­on­ers can only form a dis­persed col­lec­tion, never a col­lec­tive move­ment. Against the idea that “say­ing the event” requires cel­e­brat­ing irre­ducible sin­gu­lar­ity, the GIP’s inquiries can in part also be seen as a move against the temp­ta­tion, present in the pub­lic genre of the prison mem­oir, to “con­jure away every­thing that is quo­tid­ian, famil­iar, extremely prob­a­ble, and in the final analy­sis that is cen­tral in our rela­tion­ship to the police and to jus­tice.”13 With their detailed enu­mer­a­tion of unwashed toi­lets, noise, humid­ity, mediocre slop, cramped “exer­cise yards,” frus­trated sex­u­al­ity, or the grind­ing labour of assem­bling chairs for a local fac­tory owner, the ques­tion­naires are a tax­ing tes­ta­ment to this every­day­ness of oppres­sion, as endemic in its gen­er­al­ity as it is arbi­trary in its indi­vid­ual man­i­fes­ta­tions (ran­dom cen­sor­ship, whim­si­cal pun­ish­ments, bizarre reg­u­la­tions).14 Inde­scrib­able suf­fer­ing chan­neled into dead­pan descrip­tions: “8 meters square lit by an armoured win­dow; a basin, a toi­let, two mat­tresses, an inter­phone. Total iso­la­tion. The need for con­tact turns into delir­ium. I bang my head against the wall to break the monot­ony” (57; also 120, 136 and pas­sim).

As Intolérable 2 shows, this mode of inquiry – method­i­cal and anony­mous, with the inquirer hid­den behind the appar­ent banal­ity of the ques­tion­naire – is not the only one employed by the GIP. The sec­ond pam­phlet, an inves­ti­ga­tion of the “model prison” at Fleury-Mér­o­gis starts on a rather lyri­cal vein, with a dra­matic account of a prison riot under the title “It was May First, and the weather was beau­ti­ful” and has no com­punc­tion in inter­pret­ing the actions of pris­on­ers in revolt.  Dis­cussing a protest in the exer­cise yard, the unsigned pris­oner, who seems from the lan­guage employed to be one of the GP inmates, or at least a sym­pa­thizer, says “it was more a man­ner of show­ing a lit­tle free­dom than to refuse an order. … They didn’t want any­thing, they wanted to stay there.” We can see in this inter­pret­ing of an act as unin­ter­pretable, or rep­re­sent­ing an act as unrep­re­sentable, what still remains a main­stay of con­tem­po­rary rad­i­cal the­o­riz­ing – though here accom­pa­nied by a late Lenin­ist reflex. Though the prison revolt is rightly beyond demands – a move­ment of “des­per­a­dos” exer­cis­ing “our right to free­dom even within the prison” – it is also marred by its “spon­tane­ity” (90-1). Begin­ning with this chron­i­cle and analy­sis of a riot, the GIP’s sec­ond pam­phlet is much more mixed in forms of writ­ing. The sec­ond text orig­i­nates in the Fleury-Mér­o­gis  guards’ branch of the Force Ouvrière union, more specif­i­cally in its sin­is­terly named pub­li­ca­tion: L’Espoire Péni­ten­ti­aire. It defends the guards’ “very legit­i­mate self-defense reflex,” accus­ing the author­i­ties of endan­ger­ing the prison per­son­nel but also declin­ing any respon­si­bil­i­ties if the prison secu­rity, and its atten­dant devices, are not improved, since the riot is proof that “decided men can make them­selves the mas­ters of the deten­tion in a few instants” (92). The pam­phlet con­tin­ues with a dec­la­ra­tion from the Fleury-Mér­o­gis branch of the GIP, and then moves to the body of the text, an “inquiry into the model-prison” which could be seen to stand behind Foucault’s own sys­tem­atic sus­pi­cions about “softer” pow­ers and pun­ish­ments. Its approach dif­fers markedly from that of the inau­gu­ral ques­tion­naire, alter­nat­ing between nar­ra­tive descrip­tions of the pris­ons struc­tures and prac­tices, on the one hand, and the­mat­i­cally orga­nized excerpts from prisoner’s accounts, on the other, with head­ings such as “the cell,” “the loud­speaker” and atten­tion to “model” tech­nolo­gies, like the com­mand key­board that allows one to con­tact any pris­oner in their cells “with­out need­ing to move a guard or with­out it being pos­si­ble for the inmate to refuse com­mu­ni­ca­tion” (103). Fleury-Mér­o­gis, also makes a spec­ta­cle of its reformism, mak­ing all of its prac­tices “sym­bolic” (117-18). But the humil­i­a­tion is as intense as in the older pris­ons, albeit dif­fer­ently meted out. The inquiry also intro­duces the theme of racism (113) – which is present (if often not the­ma­tized) through­out, and is hinted at by Fou­cault him­self in inter­views, where he sees the strug­gles of Alge­rian pris­on­ers in the early 1960s as an unrec­og­nized pre­cur­sor to the GIP.15 Intolérable 2 is com­plete by an account of the revolt on 5 May 1971, two texts from pris­on­ers, an excerpt of a France-soir arti­cle cel­e­brat­ing the human­ism of “a dif­fer­ent prison,” extracts from the pris­ons mani­a­cally metic­u­lous inter­nal reg­u­la­tions and – a key con­trast to the work of the GIP – the ques­tion­naire of the “edu­ca­tors” in the prison.

Intolérable 3 inter­na­tion­al­izes the scope of the GIP, to present a dossier on the assas­si­na­tion of Black Pan­ther prison mil­i­tant George Jack­son and the con­di­tions of Amer­i­can pris­ons (this will also be the object of Michel Foucault’s later inter­view about his visit to Attica). Respond­ing to the far more explic­itly polit­i­cal char­ac­ter – the “rev­o­lu­tion­ary func­tion” (154) – of the US prison move­ment, the tone of the pam­phlet changes con­sid­er­ably (though there is lit­tle dis­cus­sion of Jackson’s sui generis defense of Marx­ist-Lenin­ist tenets, like demo­c­ra­tic cen­tral­ism or the van­guard party, that the GP would soon aban­don). The book­let begins with a tren­chantly lyri­cal pref­ace by Jean Genet, with ample quotes from Jackson’s Soledad Brother, Blood in my Eye and other texts. This gives a sense of the tone: “I think we should not refuse rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, when it becomes nec­es­sary to them, that sort of mag­nif­i­cence of the dream and the act, espe­cially when the lat­ter must become exem­plary; that is, when it serves to show, daz­zlingly, the sense of a life that has wanted to be a com­plete work against a false fatal­ity” (162). This is fol­lowed by two 1971 inter­views with Jack­son, where he stresses the mil­i­tary side of his vision, but also makes allu­sion to the Maoist need to inquire into order to “try to painstak­ingly deter­mine what each one can do for the con­struc­tion of the com­mune” (170), to “recon­struct the world of the peo­ple” (177). The GIP fol­lows this with a text on the “war” in the pris­ons (the lan­guage is under­stand­ably more intense than in the French inquiries), “The Masked Assas­si­na­tion,”16 which pro­vides a sum­mary of the events lead­ing up to Jackson’s death, and of the cam­paign of dis­in­for­ma­tion and coun­ter-offen­sive.  The objec­tive of the lat­ter is five-fold: under­min­ing the pris­on­ers’ lawyers; “bring­ing under sus­pi­cion of com­plic­ity the whole black com­mu­nity”; “mak­ing the deval­ued image of the guards reas­sur­ing”; “break­ing the com­mon front between black and white inmates”; and destroy­ing the pres­tige of black lead­ers who are uni­fy­ing ordi­nary and polit­i­cal pris­on­ers (194-5). A fur­ther text analy­ses the after­math and under­li­nes (per­haps under Deleuze’s pen) Jackson’s “line of flight” as proof that power is not a seam­less moloch, that “every­thing escapes power, begin­ning with what it does, what it con­spires about but does not dom­i­nate. The mur­der of Jack­son is one of these things, a line of flight, as Jack­son would have said, to which rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies com­mit them­selves” (209).17 The final text in Intolérable 3, “Jackson’s Place in the Prison Move­ment’, echo­ing some of Foucault’s own reflec­tions on the mar­ginal plebs (let’s not for­get that “the Lumpen” was a key polit­i­cal cat­e­gory for the Black Pan­ther Party), advances Jackson’s idea of pris­ons as a ful­crum for the cre­ation of rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies as a pos­i­tive chal­lenge to the incor­po­ra­tion of bour­geois ide­olo­gies about crime into the labour move­ment.

Hors serie, the call from the US is echoed, albeit in a very dif­fer­ent key – that of every­day, often seem­ingly minor, demands with­out any explicit rev­o­lu­tion­ary hori­zon – in the Cahiers of demands issued by pris­on­ers involved in the then recent rebel­lions at Toul, Loos-Lès-Lille, Nancy, Fres­nes and Nîmes. Against the grain of a read­ing of these texts as archives of sin­gu­lar­i­ties (sug­gested in Artières’s post­face) the Cahiers begin with a dec­la­ra­tion that these tes­ti­monies des­ig­nate “a vast, com­plex and diverse sys­tem, which, in the name of ‘secu­rity’ … seeks to humil­i­ate and break each pris­oner” (223). Though the text returns to a lan­guage of prise de con­science which the GIP man­i­festo had side­lined, it also stresses that what is at stake is a “col­lec­tive and con­tin­u­ous move­ment,” in which the pro­le­tariat of the pris­ons has relayed the one of indus­try and ser­vices: “The inmates have occu­pied the pris­ons like work­ers occupy the fac­tory” (224).

The final book­let, Intolérable 4, edited by Defert and Deleuze (anony­mously, as with all the work of the GIP) is con­cerned with prison sui­cides. Though Artières takes this last text as exem­plary of the “event of the word,” of the GIP’s prac­tice of dé-parole, let­ting be “the sin­gu­lar, the frag­men­tary and the unheard” (343), it con­tin­ues to stress, at the very limit, the ques­tion of polit­i­cal col­lec­tiv­ity that occu­pies the whole series. Sui­cide is “another facet of the col­lec­tive intol­er­ance of the inmates and a call to pub­lic opin­ion. Each sui­cide today already reg­is­ters itself into forms of com­bat that elab­o­rate them­selves for tomor­row” (272). Les sui­cides de prison accom­pa­nies the grim list of sui­cides with short por­traits of these “infa­mous men” – not­ing, among other things, how 8 of 32 sui­cides between 8 Jan­u­ary 1972 and 30 Decem­ber 1972 are immi­grants. The book­let also con­tains what is in many ways the most strik­ing and mov­ing doc­u­ment, if also the most dis­tant from the rad­i­cal orga­ni­za­tional hori­zon of the GIP’s ini­tial man­i­festo: a sequence of let­ters from H.M., a gay inmate impris­oned (pos­si­bly entrapped) for drug deal­ing, and writ­ing to his friends mean­der­ing, angry, elo­quent let­ters, rang­ing from his com­ments on books by the psy­chi­a­trist David Cooper to his intol­er­ance of the exist­ing left (“PSU, CGT, PC = merde merde merde,” 289), from Hare Krishna to the Doors; striv­ing to break with the bru­tal­ity of iso­la­tion but also “to tell them the Truth,” all the while chron­i­cling the effects of his med­ica­tion (vis­i­ble in the crum­bling syn­tax and orthog­ra­phy as the let­ters con­clude and the drugs hit), and his (failed) efforts to stave off sui­ci­dal despair.18

No tra­jec­tory “from rev­o­lu­tion to ethics” can unify this archive, to his­tori­cize it as the work­ing-through of child­ish fanati­cisms. Nor can we find here a prac­ti­cal model today – save to recall that the prison is in many respects a far more abhor­rent, and cer­tainly a vaster insti­tu­tion of con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ism than it was in the early 1970s, and one that urgently requires re-politi­ciza­tion. What these book­lets leave behind though remains in many ways vital: the need to fash­ion unau­tho­rized inquiries into col­lec­tive move­ments, pre­cisely where the social sci­ences, dom­i­nant opin­ion and much of the tra­di­tional Left might see only a col­lec­tion of prob­lems; to undo the divi­sions between work­ers and their oth­ers; to incite “active intol­er­ance.”

  1. Richard Wolin, The Wind from the East: French Intel­lec­tu­als, the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, and the Legacy of the 1960s (Prince­ton: Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press, 2010), 4, 342. 

  2. Julian Bourg, From Rev­o­lu­tion to Ethics: May 1968 and Con­tem­po­rary French Thought (Mon­treal: McGill-Queen’s Uni­ver­sity Press, 2007), 343. See also Serge Audier, La pen­sée anti-68 (Paris: La Décou­verte, 2008), 354. I dis­cuss these texts and the objec­tions – by the likes of François Cus­set and Kristin Ross – to the the­sis of ’68 as a van­ish­ing medi­a­tor for lib­eral democ­racy in “Begin­nings and Ends: For, Against and Beyond ‘68’,” New For­ma­tions 65 (2008): 94-104.  

  3. One should also note the par­tic­i­pa­tion of Gilles Deleuze, who took on much of the work for Intolérable 4, of Pierre Vidal-Naquet (his­to­rian of ancient Greece) and Jean-Pierre Dom­e­n­ach (left-Catholic edi­tor of the jour­nal Esprit), who co-signed the found­ing man­i­festo of the GIP with Fou­cault, of Danielle Ran­cière and of Foucault’s part­ner Daniel Defert. Among those who par­tic­i­pated in the GIP’s actions and cam­paigns were also Jean-Paul Sartre, Helène Cixous, Jean-Pierre Faye and Jacques Donzelot. On Deleuze’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the GIP, includ­ing the risks to his health incurred in their demon­stra­tions, and how they fed into his rede­f­i­n­i­tion, with Fou­cault, of the role of the intel­lec­tual, see François Dosse, Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guat­tari: Inter­sect­ing Lives, trans. Deb­o­rah Glass­man (New York: Columbia Uni­ver­sity Press, 2010), 309-13. 

  4. Groupe d’information sur les pris­ons, Intolérable, ed. Philippe Artières (Paris: Ver­ti­cales, 2013). Page num­bers in paren­the­ses are from this text.  

  5. The orig­i­nal ques­tion­naire had been drafted by Christine Mar­tineau, a lawyer then fin­ish­ing a book on pris­ons, and Danielle Ran­cière, with Marx’s 1880 inquiry as the model. Dosse, op. cit., 310. The GIP also gave rise to a host of other infor­ma­tion-groups, on health, youth ser­vices, and so on. 

  6. Michel Fou­cault, “Table ronde” (1972), Dits et écrits I, 1954-1975 (Paris: Gal­li­mard, 2001), 1202. Fou­cault also speaks of the “the vio­lent mar­ginal strata of the ple­beian pop­u­la­tion’ recov­er­ing polit­i­cal con­scious­ness.” “Le grand enfer­me­ment,” Dits et écrits I,1171. See also his dec­la­ra­tion, in a dis­cus­sion with a Renault Bil­lan­court worker, that “If you look care­fully at the work­ing class, in the final analy­sis, it is ille­gal­ist.” “L’intellectuel sert à rassem­bler les idées mais son savoir est par­tiel par rap­port au savoir ouvrier” (1973), Dits et écrits I, 1290.  

  7. “À pro­pos de la prison d’Attica” (1974), Dits et écrits I, 1400. 

  8. “Le dis­cours de Toul” (1971), Dits et écrits I, 1106. 

  9. “Un prob­lème m’intéresse depuis longtemps, c’est celui du sys­tème pénal” (1971), 1075. 

  10. “Un prob­lème m’intéresse depuis longtemps, c’est celui du sys­tème pénal” (1971), 1076. He con­tin­ues: “it is accord­ing to the class to which one belongs, accord­ing to the pos­si­bil­i­ties of for­tune, accord­ing to social posi­tions that one obtains jus­tice.”  

  11. This Ver­ti­cales edi­tion also con­tains a very use­ful, detailed chronol­ogy of the actions of the GIP and rel­e­vant cir­cum­stances. 

  12. “Pré­face” (1973), Dits et écrits I, 1266-7. In an unchar­ac­ter­is­tic turn of phrase he calls this: “A phi­los­o­phy of the peo­ple” (1267). 

  13. “Pré­face” (1973), Dits et écrits I, 1263. 

  14. Fou­cault makes an explicit link between the every­day­ness of prison demands and the every­day as a site of politi­ciza­tion post-68 in a 1973 inter­view: “Pris­ons et révoltes dans les pris­ons,” 1296. See also Dosse, 312.  

  15. “Pris­ons et révoltes dans les pris­ons” (1973), Dits et écrits I, 1294. 

  16. Already trans­lated into Eng­lish as Michel Fou­cault, Catharine von Bülow and Daniel Defert, “The Masked Assas­si­na­tion” in Joy James (ed.), War­fare in the Amer­i­can Home­land: Polic­ing and Prison in a Penal Democ­racy (Durham: Duke Uni­ver­sity Press, 2007). Also edited by James is the excel­lent col­lec­tion, con­tain­ing Jackson’s “Toward the United Front,” Impris­oned Intel­lec­tu­als: America’s Polit­i­cal Pris­on­ers Write on Life, Lib­er­a­tion and Rebel­lion (Lan­ham: Rowan & Lit­tle­field, 2003). 

  17. Deleuze and Guat­tari cite Jackson’s dec­la­ra­tion “I may be run­ning, but I’m look­ing for a gun as I go” in the dis­cus­sion of the “line of flight” in A Thou­sand Plateaus, trans. B. Mas­sumi (Lon­don: Con­tin­uum, 2004), 226. See also Michelle Koerner, “Line of Escape: Gilles Deleuze’s Encoun­ter with George Jack­son,” Genre 44.2 (2011), 157-80. 

  18. The final Intolérable also con­tains a brief com­men­tary on H.M.‘s let­ters as a “lived analy­sis of the per­son­i­fied mech­a­nisms which do not cease to push [young peo­ple] into houses of cor­rec­tion, the hos­pi­tal, the bar­racks, prison” (312); five fur­ther doc­u­ments on sui­cide in pris­ons; an inter­view with a prison doc­tor, detail­ing the par­lous state of carceral psy­chi­a­try; and an exam­ple of an offi­cial com­plaint by the Asso­ci­a­tion for the Defense of the Rights of Inmates.  

Author of the article

teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he co-directs the Centre for Philosophy and Critical Thought. He is the author of Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea, and Cartographies of the Absolute (with Jeff Kinkle). He is a member of the editorial board of Historical Materialism and is series editor of The Italian List at Seagull Books.